Ney­mar shows usual signs of magic but is un­able to dom­i­nate for Brazil

The Guardian Australia - - Sport - Bar­ney Ronay at Wem­b­ley

With 23 min­utes gone on a room-tem­per­a­ture night at Wem­b­ley Ney­mar did some­thing beau­ti­ful, del­i­cate and al­most en­tirely at odds with the rest of this game.

Tak­ing the ball with a knot of white shirts in front of him Ney­mar eased into a tiny green pocket of space and pro­duced a lu­di­crous pass, rais­ing his right foot at an oblique an­gle to gen­er­ate back­spin and flick­ing off his lit­tle toe a per­fectly floated ball be­tween two de­fend­ers for Gabriel Je­sus to wrig­gle in be­hind and al­most get a shot on goal.

A bit later Ney­mar nut­megged Jake Liver­more near the cen­tre cir­cle, draw­ing wild, squeal­ing cheers. But then it was a very funny nut­meg, so ob­vi­ously tele­graphed it might have been the punch­line to a ram­bling Ron­nie Cor­bett arm­chair mono­logue.

As Brazil lost the ball Ney­mar tracked back and took pos­ses­sion from Mar­cus Rash­ford by his own goal line, slid past Kyle Walker with no dis­cernible shift of feet then cov­ered 60 yards like a drop of rain run­ning down a win­dow. For all the money, the bag­gage, the celebrity per­sona, this is a gen­uinely ef­fort­less foot­baller.

Not that Eng­land were at any stage be­guiled, or shaken from their fu­ri­ously dogged de­fen­sive shape on a night when the most ex­pen­sive foot­baller in the world was only ever al­lowed to dec­o­rate rather than dom­i­nate.

But then, this is how South­gate’s Eng­land have be­gun to de­fine them­selves, a team of hair-shirt de­fen­sive dili­gence, re­flect­ing the man­ager’s own re­strained, metic­u­lous, oddly chas­tened per­sona. Across the past six hours and four matches home and away, the com­bined score reads 2-0 to Eng­land. One of those goals was a penalty.

When the Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion booked its Novem­ber “pres­tige friendlies”, an­nounced with great blar­ing piz­zazz by the Wem­b­ley PA even as Eng­land sealed World Cup qual­i­fi­ca­tion, this prob­a­bly wasn’t quite what they had in mind. Eng­land man­aged three shots on tar­get across these two matches.

Through­out, they have played to avoid de­feat first, never quite liv­ing up to the promise made so of­ten dur­ing qual­i­fi­ca­tion that against bet­ter teams Eng­land would be able to break, to spring for­ward, to find space in be­hind.

The main fo­cus of con­cern will be on an un­prece­dent­edly joy­less cen­tral mid­field. South­gate con­tin­ued with the Dier-Liver­more ful­crum, a mid­field duo who would un­doubt­edly be ex­tremely use­ful mov­ing fur­ni­ture out of a van or ma­noeu­vring a pi­ano up a flight of stairs, but who lack a lit­tle when it comes to guile and del­i­cacy of touch.

In front of them Ruben Lof­tusCheek was again del­e­gated all creative mid­field du­ties. Eng­land’s man­ager is fo­cused. But he is un­likely ever to be con­fused with a cav­a­lier.

On the re­verse side of this, Eng­land would surely have lost had they tried to go toe-to-toe with more nim­ble, more flu­ent op­po­nents. They needed that pro­tec­tion. In the open­ing half-hour Brazil were good, stretch­ing Eng­land right across their own stel­lar front line.

Eng­land held their own, never at any stage fell prey to the Ney­mar show, were never tempted to sit back and ad­mire. In the sec­ond minute Lof­tus-Cheek pressed up so ag­gres­sively against Ney­mar’s back as he wig­gled and shim­mied in search of space they seemed to be Charleston­ing to­gether 30 yards back towards his own goal. Eng­land gave no quar­ter here or against Ger­many. They are un­doubt­edly a team. Just not, per­haps, a par­tic­u­larly good one yet.

Hav­ing charmed for 30 min­utes, pro­duc­ing in the process the only mem­o­ries that are likely to linger of a so-so game, Ney­mar faded to the edge of things. For a while in the sec­ond half he fell over a bit. Then he faded again. Then he fell over a few times more, wisely tak­ing the chance to rest on the lush turf with a full league and Euro­pean pro­gramme com­ing up.

The frus­tra­tion will be that at times Eng­land showed they do have some flair of their own. For Rash­ford this was a fine oc­ca­sion play­ing op­po­site Ney­mar, on whom he has mod­elled parts of his game. He played well, show­ing his own con­fi­dence on the ball, not afraid to drib­ble and twist and take on his man.

It is an un­help­ful com­par­i­son in many ways: Ney­mar is a unique player, with a way of mov­ing the ball and shift­ing his bal­ance that of­ten eludes the naked eye, glid­ing about like a lovely lit­tle light­weight skill­robot made out of graphite and alu­minium and ic­ing sugar. But Rash­ford has his own qual­i­ties, too, and will learn from games like these.

Eng­land do have craft and flair in this group. The ques­tion re­mains, will they be al­lowed to show it?

Ney­mar lies on the Wem­b­ley turf on a frus­trat­ing night for Brazil. Pho­to­graph: Clive Rose/Getty Images

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